(CDN Dates: Winnipeg (Oct 2), Calgary (Oct 4), Edmonton (Oct 5), Vancouver (Oct 7), Toronto (Oct 25), Montreal (Oct 28))
Since resurrecting the Smashing Pumpkins in 2005, singer/guitarist Billy Corgan was figuratively between a rock and a hard place. Aside from a return by drummer Jimmy Chamberlin who since left, the only link to earlier albums like Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness and Gish was Corgan.
Basically nothing Corgan did — beyond an improbable reunion of the original lineup or playing a hits package – could placate fans or critics. But the band’s latest album Oceania should have fans embracing the future of this current Smashing Pumpkins incarnation.
Corgan says he wasn’t surprised by Oceania’s overwhelmingly glowing reviews.
“Honestly it was pretty much what we expected, we felt strongly about it,” he says, 20 years to the day after one of their “worst gigs” at the 1992 Reading Festival. “We didn’t necessarily think that everyone was going to run out with roses in their hands and say, ‘Welcome back to rock and roll!’ But we knew it was strong enough considering what’s going on musically in the culture. And the responses we got behind the scenes were so strong. I hadn’t gotten that kind of response in an album behind the scenes since Mellon Collie. So we had confidence but you know you never know, things move so fast these days.”
Smashing Pumpkins also gave fans a primer by playing a handful of tracks they were working on which later made Oceania. Road-testing that material gave Corgan a hint he was going the right way.
“Some longtime fans who are pretty mature let’s call it in their thinking were pulling me aside and saying, ‘We know you’re onto something,’” he says. “I thought that was kind of cool that they picked up on it whereas the rest of the public seemed to be very focused on, ‘Oh you’re not playing enough old songs, we don’t like the new ones.’ It was fascinating to see fans pull me aside and say, ‘You’re getting somewhere, keep up the good work.’”
The 13-track album contains several adventurous prog-friendly tracks like the nine-minute title track and the hard-hitting opener “Quasar” which instantly grabs your attention. Corgan says it was that instant connection the band was seeking. In fact he entered the recordings not assuming people would listen to the album twice.
“Well immediacy is something that I think is valuable where we are in the music culture right now,” he says. “It reminds me of hot jazz, it better come out of the gates swinging. I think we went back to a place where people seem to like what I do if the music track is exciting and them somehow I find a way to sing over that track.
“I think for many years there I was kind of looking for different balances and I don’t think people found the music as exciting. And maybe because I’m not seen as a singer-songwriter type I don’t necessarily have a crowd that come looking for the song like they maybe would for Springsteen or Lou Reed. Which is weird because I feel that I write really good songs but there seems to be more of an attraction to the energetic end of it.”
One track which seems to exemplify the challenging nature of the music is “Pinwheels” which Corgan said went through sounding like “Yes or The Black Crowes” at different stages.
“It just seemed to evolve through styles without really ever settling on one which made me personally really uncomfortable because I thought it was a good song,” he says. “So when we got in the studio I just threw my hands up and said, ‘Okay let’s just kind of make it up as we go along.’ It’s even weird to play it live because it’s kind of a hodgepodge of different things. It never really sits in one style and in that way it’s unique.”
The group are also diving headfirst into another new, interesting concert concept, namely opening each show on this current jaunt by playing Oceania in its roughly hour-long entirety complete with elaborate imagery overhead. The second half doles out several signature songs. The only other time this writer recalled such a format was in 2006 when Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour played his On An Island solo album in the first half before a monumental latter half of hits.
“That’s who I stole it from, yeah!” Corgan says. “I actually saw that tour, he came out and played two songs from Dark Side Of The Moon and then he said, ‘Okay, I’m going to play the whole new album and then play some classics.’ It had a real beauty to it. So that’s where it came from. Although I wish I got to open the show with two songs from Dark Side Of The Moon, that would help.”
Corgan added that performances have been well-received so far but the album is far more complicated to play on stage than he even imagined. Regardless, the current lineup’s chops definitely makes things easier.
“Really consistent and really good with space,” he says when asked about their strengths. “The old band was very much about density which of course had a real visceral power but that was very erratic depending on the night and then drugs and the hall we were in. I think the fact this band can go into pretty much any venue and play a really consistent show is actually really important in the modern world.
“In the ’90s I didn’t mind if 40 per cent of the audience left mad at me because the other 60 per cent were converts and they would walk out singing our praises. I don’t think you can do that anymore. I don’t think you can have 40 per cent of your audience walking out on you and hammering you on Twitter.”
Saying he feels rock and roll has become a place where bands “almost become franchises of their own sound,” Corgan compares the genre now to “going to a mall and seeing fake Monet Water Lilies.” He also feels if a young Smashing Pumpkins were starting out today they’d survive.
“I’d like to think I’d be adaptable and that I was talented enough but I think it would be very, very difficult,” he says. “I recently said something along the lines where the Kurt Cobain of today would have a hard time making it. What I was saying was that a person with a unique set of skills has difficulty getting themselves across in the market that embraces homogenization of talent. It’s basically the American Idol applied everywhere.
“I think this is why many of the talented alternative artists have turned into what I would call the Pitchfork model but it kind of enslaves them to a smaller ideal. Whether you’re David Byrne or Kurt Cobain there’s something really powerful about an alternative artist who can take really dispirit edgy ideas, bring them into the mainstream and in essence change the conversation. The way that alternative music is going now it’s the snake eating its own tail.
“We opened for Guns N Roses in 1992 and people booed for 45 minutes. You make a choice. I was 25 years old at that point so you make a choice. You either say, ‘I’m going to figure out how to make it so that these people don’t f—king boo or I’m just going to go back to my little club and play for all of my friends who look just like me.’”
Aside from his music career, Corgan is also involved in the wrestling business with independent wrestling group Resistance Pro. He says there aren’t many similarities between the music and wrestling industries.
“Wrestling is actually far less cutthroat than the music business because eventually you’re going to meet your opponent somewhere else down the road,” he says. “So if you hurt or disrespect them in some way you’re going to be standing in a ring against them somewhere down the road a year from now. Then they won’t forget when you poked them in the eye.
“In rock and roll people cut each other’s throats all the time and just run and hide behind their feign links of security. I’ll say this much, it’s amazing how many times people who’ve come out and said really hard things against me publicly when we play with them on festival bills, they avoid me like the plague. It’s because I’m 6’4″ and 220. Suddenly it’s not so funny anymore.”